India’s manufacturing sector that accounts for roughly 16-17% of the national gross domestic product (GDP) suffers from serious gender imbalance. Just 12% of the workforce in manufacturing in the country are women. Even within this larger grouping, if we look at only “organised” manufacturing, women participation has remained a constant 20% for nearly two decades, according to a recent Annual Survey of Industries (ASI). Globally women account for around 30% of the workforce in the manufacturing sector.
India’s severe gender imbalance in manufacturing is in sharp contrast to the agriculture sector that has three times as many women while its share in GDP at 20% is not much ahead of manufacturing. Service sector, the largest component of India’s GDP, has a healthier share of women workforce though largely restricted to urban India.
The gender imbalance in the manufacturing sector is a serious socio-economic challenge that not only fails to provide a stable livelihood for women seeking financial independence but will also derail the country’s larger economic ambitions like building a $5 trillion economy or increase the share of manufacturing in GDP to 25%.
As noted earlier, the low participation of women in India’s manufacturing sector is not a new problem. The fundamental nature of sector, seen as physically more demanding, has often been cited as the most obvious reason for this anomaly. At some level this argument doesn’t hold much water if we see what women in agriculture are capable of. Working 12 hours in a farm from sun up to sun down is no walk in the park. From government data we also know that some 80% of working women in rural India are earning their livelihood from agriculture. But let us park this for the time being and see how manufacturing sector itself is changing to accommodate more women now.
For far too long, women were denied opportunities under the guise of protecting them, kept away from aspiring for anything beyond their reach for their own safety. Often it is the lack of a support structure that gets in the way of women attempting something big. Towards this end, we set about putting the support structure in place.
In 2019, Tata Steel became the first company in India to implement the reforms brought about by the Government of India, allowing women to work in all shifts in mines as part of its Women@Mines programme. In pursuit of our larger objective of having 25% diverse workforce by 2025, we continue to work towards both increasing and retaining the women workforce in the organisation. To enable this, we have redefined our recruitment model, enabled supporting policies and initiated programmes to drive higher engagement and holistic career growth. Our scholarship programme ‘Women of Mettle’ provides young female engineering students with enriching manufacturing industry exposure in addition to a career opportunity.
The growing share of digital technology that we now call Industry 4.0 or automation is fundamentally changing how we are running our factories and even more physically challenging workplaces like mining. As manufacturing operations evolve with better technology, it will eliminate barriers that have traditionally limited women participation and open up more opportunities for a diverse workforce.
There is no upside to keeping women away from the manufacturing sector. On the contrary, there is a lot to gain by improving gender balance in the sector. According to one recent survey-based study by Deloitte, having more women leaders in manufacturing paints a very interesting picture. Nearly 90% of the respondents saw improvement in diverse perspectives in decision making, 84% saw more innovative and creative approaches and solutions, 74% believe they have a balanced organisational management and nearly half saw their financial performance improve. So seeking more women leaders at all possible levels in the manufacturing sector is a good start to ensure more women feel welcome into the sector, including blue-colour roles (which is where the big numbers are).
But that’s only one part of the solution. But if we wish to have a healthy gender balance on shop floors across the country, we have to go all the way back to school. We can start encouraging girls to see engineering (beyond IT) or a diploma in any field related to manufacturing as a sound first step towards building a career in the sector. Girls (and boys) must also get to know about women excelling in traditionally male dominated fields like aviation, defence, media, etc., that are real inspirations to aspire beyond norms.
Finally, conversations at home, particularly in a tradition-bound society like India, also needs to change. Old mind sets about what girls can do or cannot needs to be replaced by more enlightened views and support from family and friends. This change is already happening to some extent, particularly with respect of social taboos around women in the manufacturing sector.
This year’s International Women’s Day is celebrated under the theme “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality” to improve women’s access to digital technology. While this initiative makes a strong case for more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), a lot can also be done in the manufacturing sector that is lot more technology driven that it ever has been before. Industry 4.0 and 5.0 (with robots and smart machines) is completely transforming the manufacturing sector. And we have run out of excuses for keeping women away from such a vital part of the economy.